Monday, November 15, 2010

Men are expendable

During the recent BBC TV series, Escape in Time, where two families compete to complete tasks involving skills that were familiar to Victorian farming families, presenter Ben Fogle commented on the gender divide, observing that the men did all the heavy and dangerous work. The social historian he was with said that this was normal, because "men were expendable". Women did the domestic tasks, raised the family and the young animals, fed the poultry and so on, while men did jobs that needed physical strength, often involving working with dangerous machinery or animals. This was because women had to be protected, said the historian; they were required to care for the family; it was more important that they survived than the men. I'm not sure how this worked when they were widowed and lost their homes and means of support, but I guess that many widows either remarried or coped on their own.

It reminded me of the social history I've managed to absorb about marriage, and that a significant proportion of the population didn't marry in the 19th century because they weren't considered marriageable - they didn't have any skills or assets to bring to a union. The rich married to seal family contracts and so on, while the poor looked for partners who were useful because they had skills and strengths. The weak and feeble were a poor prospect. An old nursery rhyme illustrates this:
Sukey, you shall be my wife
      And I shall tell you why:
I have got a little pig,
      And you have got a sty;
I have got a dun cow
      And you can make good cheese;
Sukey, will you marry me?
      Say Yes, if you please.
I've quoted this at school marriage conferences quite often.

It would be a mistake to assume that women had an easy time of it, because they weren't expected to do dangerous work. Childbearing was dangerous enough, and they did physical work for long hours. Men may have been expendable, but some were just useless. I found this when I went to work on a Shropshire dairy farm in the 1960s. My boss sacked a labourer when he hired me (because I was cheaper, at £4 a week plus my keep), but the man in question was a lazy so-and-so. His wife complained that he drank most of his wages and didn't believe in exerting himself if he could avoid it. Still, I should have been paid the same as him, but this was before the Equal Pay Act.

Before health and safety regulations, farm workers had to be extra careful but if they did get hurt they generally didn't make a fuss. I conducted a funeral for a retired farm labourer once. He'd accidentally sliced off a toe while working in the fields - the weather was so cold at the time, he didn't even notice at first. He picked it up and put it in his pocket, and carried on working for another ten minutes, before he was persuaded to get help. That story reminded me of the French and Saunders sketch about the two countrywomen, where one accidentally chops of a finger, then throws it to the dog.

I suppose you could say that 21st century life is much easier than 19th century life for wimps and weaklings, and those who can't make cheese.

Photo: Men with early corn harvesting machine, Suffolk, from 'The Farm and the Village' by George Ewart Evans.

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